Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 925:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 925.

Today, let's look at an experiment that's afoot in our museums. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Modern museums are up to an odd business. The other day I told a group of museum directors I was worried. Museums seem to be moving away from the mystery of artifacts. They seem to be going into programmed learning. I expressed grief over seeing not rocks and bones, paintings and sculpture, but rather computer screens and push buttons.

The problem with my complaint is that a whole new enterprise is arising under the old name, museum. This new institution is no longer a place to store and display pictures and artifacts. It is, instead, a place where we come to learn in new ways. They would better be called virtual museums or learning centers.

So we find I-MAX theaters, artificial rain forests, exploratoriums, children's museums -- all kinds of new displays. As these places appear, they sometimes displace the old museum content. Some are experiments that will fail. Some give us much to criticize. Yet some are truly spectacular, and some are finding radically new ways to touch us and to teach us.

Maybe I'm a Luddite to be bothered by a push-button computer standing next to our antediluvian ancestors' bones. Still, it seems to miss the point of the bones themselves to lead viewers through preprogrammed questions in the face of such a physical presence and all it evokes.

At the same time, the virtual museum is a new wind that incriminates teaching as I've known it, and done it, all my life. The still-new electronic technologies are on the way to creating remarkable means for passing on information.

The history of harpsichords is like that. Two centuries ago, harpsichords began turning into what would become the piano. At first, harpsichordists feared for their instruments and their art. But they needn't have worried. In the end, the new piano became a thing apart. Harpsichords, and their purpose, were left intact.

These new museums are only embryos. They seem to threaten the old art and science museums because that's where they first appear. But it's not the old museums that they really threaten. What they will really change is education as we know it.

All the experimentation going on in museums will, eventually, yield long-range pedagogical successes. Those successes will enter and transform the classroom just as radically as the piano transformed the 19th-century concert stage.

But the new learning centers will also break free of the artifact display museum and leave it largely intact. And 21st-century minds and senses will still be nourished by the physical presence of beauty, of history, and of our origins.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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